The House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)
My road trip this past summer included a stop in Salem, Massachusetts, the perfect excuse to finally check the box on this American classic. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a frequent visitor to his cousin’s seaside mansion, which served as the inspiration for his tale of a cursed house, tinged by witchcraft and mysterious sudden death.
My reading of Seven Gables was definitely enhanced by the excellent house tour, fresh in my mind, but I’d recommend it to anyone curious about the book that distilled life in 19th-century New England, defined Hawthorne’s reputation, and set the bar for American gothic fiction.
After a fancy breakfast at the B&B (omelets, fruit and coffee served from a silver service), we get the heck out of Appomattox. A sleepy town? No, more like a dying one. We make a detour to stop at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s retreat and wow, am I glad we did. The location is beautiful, up on a hill, surrounded by trees.
We take a fascinating guided tour, learning the history of the house (designed by Jefferson and thought to be the epitome of his design talents) and getting a glimpse of the in-progress restoration. The octagonal house is filled with natural light, comfortably-sized rooms are centered around a tall central dining room with a skylight above. There’s a sunken garden in the back and the house is centered between two small man-made hills, covered with willow and poplar trees, which provide symmetry, connected to the structure by two rows of paper myrtle trees on either side.
We spend a couple of hours at Poplar Forest before getting back in the car for the eight hour drive back to Georgetown, KY. We squeeze in an hour’s drive on the beautiful, twisting, turning Blue Ridge Highway. I can imagine how gorgeous it must be in the fall.
The drive back is quick and fun, up until the very last hour when we run directly into a wicked thunderstorm with pounding rain and frightening bolts of lightening scratching horizontally across the sky. Near-zero visibility at times makes for white-knuckle driving.
We finally arrive as the third wave of the storm passes over and we drag our stuff into the house in between cloud bursts. I collapse on the couch with a well-earned beer. Over a dinner of take-out and laughter, we recall our Virginia adventures.
Up early once again to get in a full day of driving and history. We grab a quick breakfast in the hotel cafe and then enjoy a pleasant drive north through hills and forest to Montpelier. (I’m still not positive how they pronounce it around here.)
James Madison’s home is gorgeously restored to the period when he and his wife Dolly lived there following Monroe’s retirement in 1817. The home, added onto twice during his time there, is lovely, comfortable with lots of natural light, porches and beautiful vistas. Our tour guide is terrific, another font of American history and local information, who took plenty of time to answer the many questions posed by our group, all of which led to additional interesting tidbits.
After the group tour, we spend a bit of time wandering the grounds and the formal garden (the rest of the DuPont family additions were thankfully removed during the restoration of the house.) The cafe in the visitors’ center was unimpressive so we decided to drive into the nearby town of Orange for lunch. A wise choice, as we discovered a local BBQ joint serving delicious pulled-pork sandwiches with the requisite Southern side of fried dill pickle spears.
Because of the late start and the length of time spent at Montpelier, we’re not able to take the Sky Line Drive through the Shenandoah Mountains. We have someone waiting for us in Manassas, so take a more direct route and save the Sky Line for another trip.
After a few hours on the road, we finally arrive in Manassas with the rush hour traffic and check into our hotel. We meet Tony, a member of the family and our resident Civil War expert, for dinner where talk revolves around Jefferson, Monticello and fascinating background information for tomorrow’s Civil War battlefields tour.
A fantastic day, filled with American presidential history.
After breakfast in the hotel, we hop in the car for the 15-minute drive to Monticello, climbing the hill to the visitors’ center where we wait for a shuttle bus to take us the final leg up to the house and grounds. To finally see Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, a repository of so much history, is thrilling.
We begin with the house tour, led by a very personable UVA student; the highlight for me is seeing Jefferson’s bedroom and library. After the standard tour, which includes the main rooms on the first floor and the immediate grounds, we kill a bit of time looking around in the basement (work areas, store rooms, wine cellar, slave quarters) before the start of the “back stage tour,” which takes us through the second floor of Monticello. We see a few bedrooms (none of which were furnished with Jefferson items but you get the idea) and it’s nice to see the view from above. We also get to climb the incredibly narrow winding staircases to the second floor, spending time in the dome room and the hidden alcove over the porch.
Afterward, we take the Slavery at Monticello and garden tours, both of which are chock-full of information. I’m impressed that at no point do they shy away from the subject of slavery, Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationship with the institution and, of course, Sally Hemmings. All the tour guides are excellent and really know their stuff. On the day we were there, Monticello was busy, but not insanely crowded, and I marveled at the impressive volunteer army on hand. Five hours later, we’ve seen it all, and wrap-up or visit with lunch at the visitors’ center.
Next, we’re off for a quick visit to James Monroe’s abode, conveniently located about a five minutes drive away. Quite a stark contrast between these homes. Ash Lawn-Highland is smaller, humbler, less impressive but no less interesting. Monroe’s home is notably different from when he lived there (the second floor was added later) and the later time period is quite apparent by the different style in architectural style, furnishing and decor.
We take a quick house tour, given by a young man dressed in a sports coat on a very warm day. I take a photo of a 300-plus-year-old tree on the grounds and we call it a day. Montpelier, James Madison’s home, would have to wait until tomorrow.
Back in Charlottesville, we take a dusk walk around the UVA campus. Much of the historic Jefferson-era section is under restoration, looking less than its best. It’s still fun to see after hearing and reading so much about the place. Dinner is at The Virginian, a local university hangout. So far, Virginia’s craft beer scene is nothing to write home about.
On our way out of Charleston, we grab an early breakfast at Frutcake–a great cup of coffee and a very tasty blueberry scone and egg & sausage muffin. Undeterred by the drizzly weather we hit our first landmark stop of the trip: The New River Gorge Bridge. We make the descent down to the bridge overlook, snap some photos, and marvel at the view. Even with the fog and under overcast skies, the bridge is wildly impressive. So what if it’s no longer the world’s longest steel single-span bridge (it’s third), NRG Bridge is quite a marvel.
Continuing on to the Virginia state line, we stop in the cute town of Lewisburg, WV for lunch. The Stardust Cafe was a real accidental find, tasty locally-sourced ingredients and loads of character. My avocado melt was fantastic. Before we hit the road again, we three split a pot of French press coffee and a slice of the delicious cocoanut cake that has been tempting us from the display case of delectable baked goods.
Back on the highway, we’ve left coal country for the lush, green-forested winding roads through the Appalachian mountains between West Virginia and Virginia. We reach our destination, Charlottesville, and check into a very nice Courtyard Marriott near the University of Virginia campus. At dinnertime, we walk about a mile over to a pedestrian mall that is hopping with activity, shoppers and diners, tourists and locals. We dine on fresh fish at Blue Lite, sitting outside in the middle of the mall, sipping local beer and people watching.
In preparing for my next road trip east (just a few weeks away), I was surprised to see that I’d never updated my blog with the particulars of last year’s trip east to Virginia. So, in an effort to catch up and thoroughly confuse things, I’m posting my trip notes from last summer now.
Thursday, 19 July 2012
The drive from Chicago to Georgetown, KY is uneventful. We pass miles of brown fields baking in the sun. Rows of corn that look small and tired. We make good time to Jan’s, about eight hours, including a stop at New Albanian Brewery for lunch and to pick up a growler of beer for our evening meal.
At Jan’s, we crash for a few hours, resting and reading until dinnertime. A tradition was born on a previous trip: BLTs made with bacon cooked on the grill by Jan’s neighbor Day–the secret is hickory chips on the fire–and home grown tomatoes from the rooftop garden. We polish off the growler and watch the sunset from the roof. Early to bed.
Friday, 20 July 2012
We hit the road to West Virginia, stopping for lunch in Ashland, KY. The town isn’t much to write home about. We all get a chuckle out of lunch at Crisp’s Dairy Treat, a local hot dog/hamburger/ice cream take-out joint. I order the hot dog “with sauce,” which turns out to be ground hamburger. Hmmmm, meat on meat. I sincerely hope all our meals will be looking up from here.
Before leaving Ashland, Jan wants to make a stop at “The Judd Museum.” Don’t look for it in any guide book; it’s actual name is The Highlands Museum. It’s as small town as a museum can get and prominently features displays of the region’s famous musical talent–Ricky Skaggs, Crystal Gale, the Cyruses (Miley and Billy Ray), and of course The Judds–complete with costumed and bewigged mannequins. Let’s just say it didn’t inspire me to augment my music library.
Had a pleasant drive once into West Virginia. Charleston, the capital, looked fairly grey and grim, a town that’s seen better times. The overcast weather didn’t help. We check into the Best Western and then walk through the historic district toward the golden-domed capital building. For dinner, we take a chance on Bluegrass Kitchen, a restaurant that touts locally grown/sustainable cuisine, with a cozy bar populated by locals. To our delight, ours is a memorable, relaxed meal accompanied by some interesting local brews. I had the locally caught trout with grits and braised kale. Outstanding. If I ever find myself in Charleston again, I will definitely make a return visit.
While walking the mile back to our hotel, we pass a cute little bakery and make a note to stop there for breakfast on our way out of town.